Sunday, February 5, 2012

Kingdoms of Amalur: Demo Impressions

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning launches in a couple of days, and I definitely won't be buying it. It's a pretty good game with an interesting combat system, but judging by the demo, it just doesn't feel like it's worth $60. This is a game that probably needs more than an hour's worth of tutorial and "starting town" quests to get a good impression of, but a lot of its design mechanics just feel off. Like it's the redheaded stepchild of some better RPG that might have been.

The running theme here is "I like it, but...." I would probably only get it with a 75% discount. Even though the full game could be really great, the demo turned me off of paying full price for it. It suffers badly from consolization and just doesn't play like anything I'd expect for a PC release. And a few of its design mechanics explicitly remind me of other games, which only goes to pull me out of the experience and detracts from KOA's uniqueness.

So I've got a run-down of things I liked, things I didn't like, and things I'm on the fence about in the full article. This only reflects my experiences with the demo.

Things I Liked:
1) The graphics are somewhat "cartooney" and will immediately remind most players of World of Warcraft's visual design. This is a turn-off for some, but I enjoyed it. I found it rather refreshing to have such whimsical visuals when most other fantasy-RPGs go for "dark, gritty, and realistic" visuals. So instead of trying to look like every other game out there, it tries to look like WOW, which is fine with me considering I aint never played WOW to care, and I think this style fits with the kinds of worlds that I would envision from R.A. Salvatore (who penned the story for this game, and is most famous for his Drizzt Do'Urden novels).
2) Leveling-up grants you talent points to spend on skills in three different skill trees, which I'm told are also reminiscent of WOW. So you have a tree for warrior, rogue, and mage skills, and it looks easy enough to mix-and-match the basics from each tree to make a hybrid class. But most importantly, it looks like things will actually change significantly from the beginning to the end of the game, in terms of how you play, because you unlock lots of new skills and maneuvers, which makes me want to keep leveling-up to get new stuff and try new combos out. 

3) The combat is a lot more fluid and involved than some other mainstream action-RPGs (I'll mention Skyrim, for example). You're performing multi-hit combos, rolling around dodging attacks, executing special skills and attacks, and it comes close to capturing the intensity of playing God of War, or maybe even Devil May Cry, except in the context of an RPG. The magic system in particular appealed to me, because mages don't just hang back flinging spells, their staves have close-ranged magic combos that get them into the heat of battle, while still allowing them to cast the really cool spells.

Things I Disliked:
1) The Field of View is way too narrow for a PC game, or this kind of "open-world" RPG in general. You sit closer to a computer monitor than you do a TV, and so the screen takes up more of your FOV, and yet what you see in the game looks like you're trapped in some hallway because you just get zero peripheral vision. You don't get to feel the "openness" of the environments you're in because you can only ever see a tiny portion of it at a time, which contradicts the style of game that they were going for. 
2) The camera hugs way too close to your character, which further exacerbates point #1. The default sensitivity for the camera is crazy, where a slight tilt sends it a whole 90 degrees around, so I had to turn it down almost to the bare minimum to get it to a tolerable level. And then in combat, the camera zooms out and pans around, presumably to give you a better view of the battlefield, but it would often pan left when I wanted to look right, or it would go into a weird angle where I couldn't see what was going on very clearly. I wish I could just toggle back and forth between a top-down camera angle and a behind-the-back angle, with the ability to zoom in and out of both options.

3) The interface feels way too cluttered, even though the game tries to be "helpful" by sorting your inventory into categories. Except that it's just one long list that you have to scroll through every single time you open it up. Too few are visible in the list at one time, and if you're looking for the new boots you just picked up, you have to scroll past the chest pieces, leg pieces, shield, and arm-pieces first. Menus are awkward to navigate and none of them feel like they're integrated with the rest of the game, it's like you go to a separate world to look at the menu instead of feeling like you're still in the moment. Oh, and the scroll wheel is not coded well so it's a real bother to actually scroll down to see stuff. 
4) There's an intense auto-aim feature that can make it downright impossible to hit certain targets. At one point I was trying to snipe a character with a bow from a distance, but it kept auto-targeting a barrel in-between us---I could not manually aim the bow. Another time I was trying to smash some boxes in town, and even though I was facing the boxes and was right next to it, my character kept turning the opposite direction to attack a chicken. Sometimes I was going to attack an enemy on my right, and my character turned to attack an enemy on my left. And spells seem to cast the direction you're facing, instead of where the camera is aimed, which I could get used to, but it threw me off a lot.

5) Stolen goods are mysteriously identifiable by all merchants, and they won't buy them from you. This annoyed the hell out of me in Oblivion, it annoys me in Skyrim, and now it's showing up in this game. It's a completely stupid system that makes absolutely no sense and utterly pisses me off that I'm seeing it again so recently after I made my most epic rage face about it making a return in Skyrim. 

Things I'm Unsure About: 
1) The lock-picking mini-game is the exact same one as from Fallout 3 and Skyrim. You use the mouse to specify the angle of your lock-pick in the lock, and then you press D to turn the lock. A thing slides across the screen and jitters right before the lockpick is about to break, and then you tweak the angle of your lockpick. I don't really mind because it's probably the most sensible lock-picking mini-game that's ever been implemented (I mean, Bethesda liked it so much they just recycled it from FO3), but it's still a blatant copy of that system and is yet another aspect that reminds me of other games and pulls me out of this game's experience. 

2) I like that you can (seemingly) explore on a free leash, but the environments feel a little constrained, as if you're in a very large and spacious hallway most of the time. This could be a good thing, because it might give the game some kind of direction for you to take everything, as opposed to being a huge, sprawling, non-linear thing where you're overwhelmed with all the places to go. But my initial impressions were of minor disappointment where I kind of thought "this is it?" 
3) For whatever reason, once I got through with the tutorial, it felt like I was playing a single-player MMORPG. It started to remind me of Guild Wars I think because of the level-design, the NPC population, the enemy monsters, and the nature of the quests. I think this was most especially the case when I was exploring outside of town, because it felt like things were just there for the sake of giving you some combat and places to poke around, not because they really had some kind of significance in terms of the larger world. It had that fleeting feeling of being in an instanced combat zone from Guild Wars, which was kind of bland unless you were there with a party. 

In Conclusion:
A lot about this game just makes it feel kind of amateur and rough around the edges, especially the interface. For the most part, these are all superficial aspects that you can overlook if you're really into the combat and the gameplay, but they were enough to detract from my experience. 
The main thing that bothers me is that Kingdoms of Amalur feels like it's making too many concessions in order to work on the consoles. There are a lot of features that PC gamers have come to expect from these kinds of games, and most of the common courtesies are absent, here. A mouse is a lot more precise than a thumbstick, and yet we're stuck with forced auto-aim. A computer monitor occupies more of your visual space, and yet we're stuck with a narrow FOV. You can use the mouse to navigate across many different tabs and items in an interface, and yet we're stuck with a cluttered system that seems designed for use with a directional pad. Really weird keystrokes to do stuff in-game, like pressing "Enter" to toggle a quest (why not just LMB?) or pressing "3" to switch between world and local maps. And we've only got the barest of possible in-game options and settings.
Why is 40% of the dialogue screen solid black? Couldn't that be a little transparent?

And then there are other weird issues. When I booted the demo up, I watched a cinematic and then the screen went black and I could hear two guys talking about me, presumably. I figured the screen was black because they mentioned a sheet being over me, and their voices were muffled so I thought it was supposed to be that way. Five minutes later the HUD appears and everything is still black, and I begin to suspect that something is awry. Turns out enabling post-processing turns the whole screen black, and the voices were muffled because of terrible audio balancing, where I had to turn sound effects and music way down, and my speaker volume up, to get everything at an equal level. 
Everything else just reminds me of other---often times better---games. There's the lockpicking mini-game from Fallout 3 and Skyrim, there's the dialogue wheel much like from Mass Effect, the graphics remind me of World of Warcraft and Fable, there's the lore stones that remind me of gossip stones from Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, the intro concept reminded me of Planescape: Torment, some of the level design and exploration reminds me of Guild Wars, the combat reminds me of God of War and Vindictus, the talent window (different from the skill trees) reminds me of Dragon Age and Arcania: Gothic 4, one of the enemies reminds me of a creature from Harry Potter, there's a character named Zelda, so on and so on.
Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is kind of like Frankenstein's monster, in that regard; the designers took elements from other games and stitched them all together, only to wind up with a weird monstrosity. That's not to say that KOA is bad, it just feels like that weird guy who shows up to a party uninvited, awkwardly trying to fit in with the rest. There's a lot about KOA that's competently made, and I really look forward to trying magic combat, but the demo just did not sell me on the full game. Especially when I've already got such a vast backlog of great games to play.
I really want to like this game, but in all likelihood, I'll be picking it up once it's close to "bargain bin" prices, unless the feedback from the full game is quite different from the demo.

1 comment:

  1. Played this game a while ago. I was skeptical but it's actually an alright game. And you're right about the Guild Wars feel it really discribes well the game. It's a Guild Wars with more active combat really.. Some later boss fight are intersting but too many are recycled. I often compare it to an medieval borderlands but without the multiplayer.